Racin’ With Jason: NASCAR on iRacing a fun TV experience

Published: 3/26/2020 5:18:04 PM
Modified: 3/26/2020 5:33:08 PM

At times, it felt weird watching grown men play a video game on television on a Sunday afternoon.
It didn’t just feel weird ... it WAS weird. That is, until, it started to resemble an actual sporting event.

As I wrote about last week, the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series — that’s a mouthful — was created to fill the void created by NASCAR postponing racing due to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. Drivers from all of NASCAR’s top three series, but primarily the top-level Cup Series, are using the online simulator iRacing to virtually compete at the tracks that have had their races put on hold.

It’s even being broadcast live by FOX Sports, which made the broadcast look and feel like a real race. But more on that later.

Denny Hamlin won the 100-lap event at the virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway with an impressive last-lap pass of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who appeared destined to win after a similar pass of Timmy Hill the lap before.

As with any event, the race had its positives and negatives. A major drawback was the disparity in experience level among the participants. Jimmie Johnson may be a seven-time Cup Series champion, but he only had about an hour of practice before “stepping in” to his simulator. The online rookie struggled, causing several wrecks. It didn’t help that his setup was more appropriate for an IndyCar or Formula 1 car, as Johnson is considering a foray into open-wheel racing after his final Cup season in 2020.

Johnson’s naivete behind the virtual wheel caused laughter from Clint Bowyer and others and the highlights of his crashes made it on SportsCenter.

Other drivers are seasoned iRacing veterans with thousands of races to their credit. Hill and Garrett Smithley are afterthoughts on a weekly basis on the national NASCAR scene, but their level of simulator expertise showed on Sunday. Hill finished third and Smithley fifth, giving them valuable exposure against NASCAR’s best.

FOX is known for revolutionizing presentation of NASCAR on TV. That expertise was put to the test, but the network passed with flying colors. I had no idea iRacing provided so many different views of the action, from in-car cameras to overhead perspectives. FOX took advantage of the system’s capabilities to make the event look like a real race. The broadcast cut from view to view just like it would on a typical Sunday. Announcers Mike Joy (formerly of the old Riverside Park Speedway in Agawam) and Jeff Gordon called the action with the same chemistry they display in the booth.

What made the broadcast unique, however, was the in-race banter provided by Bowyer and others. The cameras inside the drivers’ homes put the spotlight on their different styles of gaming rigs and captured the fun they were having.

Hamlin was one of them. He is known for using video games and simulators to help him with tracks he needs work on.

“It’s always fun when you win,” Hamlin said in a post-race teleconference. “Regardless, it was a great event for the racing community and the NASCAR drivers to come together to put 20-some drivers together on such short notice. I think it definitely was a success.”

There must have been a lot of people suffering from NASCAR withdrawals, as the race drew 903,000 viewers on Fox Sports 1. It became the most watched eSports event ever, surpassing the 770,000 who watched a Mortal Kombat tournament on The CW in 2016. FOX must hope word of mouth helps attract even more viewers for this weekend’s race at “Texas Motor Speedway.”

The iRacing phenomenon is not limited to the upper echelons of NASCAR or to its other eNASCAR series. About 40 drivers from Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway are signed up to knock the rust off tonight in an event that will air on the track’s YouTube channel.

“Unfortunately, the start to our 2020 season has been delayed, but we are making the best of the situation,” Stafford’s Paul Arute said in a press release.

The topic of non-drivers on iRacing is also a hot topic among NASCAR aficionados. Some say that successful simulator drivers should be taken as seriously as those who really push two tons of metal around every weekend. The winners of NASCAR’s iRacing series get paid more than some of the weekly series drivers do, which rubs many the wrong way.

I don’t think the sim drivers should be seen on the same level as those who put their lives on the line every week for little to no money, simply for the love of the sport. I can see how some, such as William Byron, have used it as a springboard to success in real cars, but that doesn’t mean every simulator driver is the next William Byron.

What makes the Pro Invitational Series attractive is that it’s simply NASCAR’s top level drivers keeping their skills sharp while having fun doing so. They’re not looking for attention or acceptance.

Jason Remillard is a copy editor and page designer at the Greenfield Recorder. He can be reached at jremillard@recorder.com and followed on Twitter @racinwithjason.

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